A Matter of Trust: B.C. Gulf Islands Real Estate

B.C.'s Gulf Islands have seen almost four decades of bitter infighting pitting ?development against protection of “unique amenities” and “community ?character.” Is there a better way for Gulf Islanders to govern ?their land use and ensure long-term economic viability?

Sebastian Moffatt sees farming as vital to a dynamic community – and that might upset Nimbyists who have little truck with tractors and roosters.

B.C.’s Gulf Islands have seen almost four decades of bitter infighting pitting 
development against protection of “unique amenities” and “community 
character.” Is there a better way for Gulf Islanders to govern 
their land use and ensure long-term economic viability?

Like a lot of British Columbians, Sheldon Duff dreamed of one day owning a property in the Gulf Islands. The UBC professor of environmental engineering pictured retiring and using a modest island residence as his home base while travelling the world. Duff knew it was a long shot; his professor’s salary would barely provide the means to buy a piece of property, much less a waterfront residence and boat to accommodate an island lifestyle. But when an eight-hectare parcel of former forestry land on Galiano Island came on the market in 2003, he saw an opportunity. The existing forestry zoning at the time meant Duff couldn’t build on the property, but that restriction had been quashed in court once before and was under legal challenge once again.


“I took a big gamble and I lost,” the now-retired Duff says of his property, which he still can’t legally live on. He declines to disclose how much he paid for the land, but it isn’t so much the financial loss that bothers him; it’s the hornet’s nest of animosity and name-
calling he found himself embroiled in.

“It’s sort of a local government gone wild,” says Duff. “After attending a lot of different meetings and trying to develop different bylaws, I just got a really bad taste in my mouth about the place, and I really don’t want to be there anymore. It’s clear that you’re not wanted there.”

Duff’s is not an isolated story. Bitter in-fighting pitting neighbour against neighbour is endemic to the Gulf Islands: on Saturna, it’s a controversy over whether new development threatens scarce water resources; on Hornby it’s whether short-term rentals threaten the residents’ tranquil lifestyle; on Galiano it’s a fight over whether former forestry lands should be preserved as pristine wilderness. The pattern is similar: a development is proposed, a vocal opposition erupts and years of lawsuits and bylaw manipulations ensue. The toxic environment boiled over last summer with a demonstration protesting the denial of a rezoning application by Salt Spring Coffee Co. and a petition calling for the overthrow of the Islands Trust, the governing body that for 37 years has been responsible for land-use planning on the islands.


The Islands Trust Act

Created by the Islands Trust Act of 1974, the Islands Trust divvies the islands into 14 groups, each governed by a local committee comprising three trustees, two of whom are elected locally and one of whom is appointed by the trust executive in Victoria. (Bowen Island has since become a self-governing municipality, although it retains representation on the trust.) When the two locally elected trustees agree, decisions rest with them; when they disagree, the appointed trustee casts the deciding vote. However, all roads lead back to Victoria and the holy grail enshrined in the Islands Trust Act, which empowers the trust to “preserve and protect the trust area and its unique amenities and environment for the benefit of the residents of the trust area and of British Columbia generally.”

The Islands Trust was created in response to concern over unchecked development of the Gulf Islands, in particular to a 1960s subdivision that had turned 240 hectares of North Pender Island into 1,200 residential lots. In response to a public outcry, the provincial government called a moratorium on further Gulf Islands development, striking a committee to look into the issue. That committee’s recommendations would lead to the Islands Trust Act of 1974. 

Debate in the Victoria legislature one day in May 1974 offers an insight into the fiery politics from which the Trust emerged. Waving a pamphlet in the air, Progressive Conservative MLA Hugh Curtis explained that he had obtained a copy of an internal newsletter published by the ruling NDP party, and he read from an item bearing the headline Playboy Paradise Plucked by People: “Formation of the trust, which is yet to be approved by the Legislature, will mean the end of rip-off development in the islands by greedy speculators and fast-buck recreation lot developers. It will mean the end of the influence of rich foreign landowners who range from German barons to Hong Kong sweatshop bosses and California surgeons.”

Curtis objected strenuously to the language of the newsletter, claiming his constituents were “distressed” by its vision of what was needed for the islands. Despite his protestations, however, the ruling NDP would carry the day, and the Islands Trust Act was declared law on June 4 that year. Since then any requests for development have had to pass through the Islands Trust, by way of a local trust committee.


Mickey McLeod Salt Spring Coffee
After a long, bitter fight, Salt Spring Coffee’s
Mickey McLeod has decided to move his
business to the mainland.

Real estate owners on the Gulf Islands

Contrary to the popular perception fuelled by news-hour images of massive ferry lineups on long weekends, the Gulf Islands are not primarily a refuge of weekend retreats and summer cottages. According to the 2006 census, two-thirds of islands homes belong to full-time residents. For these landowners, jobs, schools and affordable housing are every bit as important as pristine waterways and scenic forest groves. The islands’ population of 25,000 is growing at double the pace of Vancouver: up 61 per cent between the 1976 and 2006 censuses, compared to 29 per cent for Vancouver. If at times the Islands Trust doesn’t seem up to the task of meeting the needs of this burgeoning population, the cause can be traced back to the act and its frustratingly vague definition of exactly what the trust is empowered to protect.

“Unfortunately, ‘amenities’ was never defined in the act,” says Sheila Malcolmson, an elected trustee for Gabriola Island who also currently serves as chair of the Islands Trust. “There’s been a lot of debate and introspection over trying to define it,” she says. She points to the official policy statement meant to guide trustees in their interpretation of the act. “It does talk about amenities as the physical heritage and the human quality,” she ventures.

Malcolmson insists the act has not locked the islands in a ’70s time warp, pointing to numerous revisions and amendments that have been made since its origin in 1974. And she refutes allegations that the trust is anti-development, pointing out that Salt Spring and Gabriola islands, in particular, have plenty of room for growth under current zoning and regulations, with many lots already subdivided and waiting to be built on.

However, it’s clear the Islands Trust Policy Statement subjugates economic development to its “preserve and protect” mandate, specifying that trustees are empowered to “address economic opportunities” only insofar as they are 
“compatible with conservation of resources and protection of community character.” And it’s that nebulous “community 
character” that lies at the heart of the conflict that has defined islands politics for nearly 40 years.

No one disputes that the islands are special and worth protecting, but there’s considerable disagreement over exactly where that “character” lies. Many argue that however the islands’ unique character is defined, ultimately the act has become an official endorsement of Nimbyism: if a proposed bylaw or zoning amendment interferes with residents’ enjoyment of the tranquil life they thought they were signing up for when they bought an island property, the local trust committee is justified in vetoing it. 


Business on the Gulf Islands

If anyone personifies the “character” typically associated with a Gulf Islands lifestyle, it’s Mickey McLeod. Raised on Texada Island, he moved to Salt Spring with his wife, Robbyn, in the 1980s to work on an organic farm. They began roasting coffee beans in their kitchen in 1994 and opened a local coffee shop in 1996. However, when the roasting business grew and the free-spirit entrepreneur sought permission to consolidate his sprawling operation at a new site, McLeod found himself on the receiving end of a smear campaign casting him as exactly the kind of sweatshop baron demonized by the original champions of the Islands Trust Act.

By 2008 McLeod’s Salt Spring Coffee Co. had grown to the point where he was employing 40 locals and roasting 290,000 kilograms of organic, fair-trade beans a year at a site that included several shipping containers, an open lean-to and an office far removed from the roasting operation. When he applied that year for the rezoning required to consolidate operations in a state-of-the-art green facility complete with solar power and recycled rainwater, he was initially encouraged by the response he got from Christine Torgrimson and George Ehring, the local trustees.

“They didn’t say, Yes, it’s a go, we’ll process it and it’ll be done,” McLeod says. “But all the indications were that, We really want to have you here, it’s good, your plan is sound, we really like it, we want to keep it.” (Ehring and Torgrimson declined to comment for this story, deferring interview requests to Sheila Malcolmson, who serves as the third, appointed, trustee on the Salt Spring local trust committee.)

However, as news of the rezoning application was made public, a vocal opposition arose. Describing themselves as “reluctant warriors,” a band of protesters calling themselves Friends of Ford Lake, led by nature painter Robert Bateman and his wife Birgit, launched an attack on Salt Spring Coffee. On its website, the group characterized McLeod’s plans as “a slick corporate attack on our quiet rural neighbourhood.” (The neighbourhood in question happens to be in the Batemans’ backyard; they live on the shores of Ford Lake, near McLeod’s proposed roasting facility.)

Initially, the debate was over environmental issues, with the protesters decrying potential damage to local air and water. However, when reports commissioned by both McLeod and the protesters found no definitive threat to the environment, the dispute ultimately came down to a threat to the character of the local community. After a year and a half of bitter debate, the local trust committee finally tipped its hand at a July 2, 2009, public meeting. Citing industrial and commercial sprawl, Torgrimson told the assembly, “I’ve seen it, I’m sick of it, I don’t want to see it here.”

At the August 2009 meeting where McLeod’s application was officially denied with the unanimous vote of the two local trustees, Ehring cited the impact on neighbours’ quality of life, saying the proposed expansion was just too big a change and too big a disturbance for the proposed location.

Sheila Malcolmson gives credence to McLeod’s claim that ultimately the local committee’s decision didn’t come down to precedent or interpreting the finer points of the legislation, but to who speaks the loudest. Referring to McLeod’s supporters, who mounted a protest after the committee denied his application, she says, “Many of the Salt Spring protesters didn’t voice their opinion when they had the chance to contribute to the coffee decision. All we can do as elected people is have open minds, encourage people to participate.”


Nimbyism governing the Gulf Islands

To McLeod, the decision was governed by Nimbyism, plain and simple. He sees it all the time, he says: people come to Salt Spring for a wedding or to visit friends and they fall in love with the place. “They go, Wow, this is wonderful, all the rural characters: the farmer who’s a contractor and he’s got a little gravel pit and has chickens that crow and he’s got a tractor.” But when they buy a property, the newcomers suddenly see those local characters in a different light, McLeod says: “They move and they realize all of a sudden this farmer actually does things on the weekend and he’s got a chicken that makes noises and he’s got maybe a goat or something. And they start complaining, and they start wanting to get the guy to close down his operation or maybe put a gag on his chickens. . . . They go to meetings, they write letters, they go to conservation cocktail parties, they manipulate the way they want things to go.”

Like Sheldon Duff on Galiano, Mickey McLeod knows when he’s not wanted on the island. His plans to upgrade his roasting facility are currently on hold while he looks for a Lower Mainland location to move his business to, along with the 40 jobs it currently provides for Salt Spring residents.

While McLeod’s ouster from the islands garnered a lot of media attention, the effects of Nimbyism are perhaps best symbolized on Galiano Island. The bitter infighting there dates back to 1991 when forestry giant MacMillan Bloedel announced its decision to sell its privately held land, which accounts for about half the island’s land mass. That sparked a dispute that continues to the present day, with conservationists squaring off against landowners in attempts to preserve the forestland as pristine wilderness. The result has been a maelstrom of lawsuits involving not only conservation groups and the local trust committee but extending to the Capital Regional District and the Ministry of Transportation. The lawsuits have been pursued all the way to the B.C. Court of Appeal, with no clear resolution in sight.

Land developments on the Gulf Islands

When MacMillan Bloedel announced its intention to sell its Galiano holdings in 1991, the local trust committee immediately enacted new bylaws cancelling the previously existing right to build one residence on each 20-hectare parcel of forestry-zoned land. That rendered the land essentially worthless, denying owners the right to build on their land. MacMillan Bloedel immediately sued and when it won a court judgment in 1993 put its land on the market, with the proviso that the favourable court ruling would likely be subject to appeal. The decision allowing one residence per lot was indeed reversed in a 1995 B.C. Court of Appeal decision.

But the power struggle didn’t end there. In 2005 a popular uprising on behalf of three aggrieved landowners threatened with eviction from their properties led to a reversal of local trust policy. A fresh slate of local trustees was ushered in and they enacted bylaws reinstating the right of property owners to live on their forestry-zoned land. The victory was short-lived, however: the bylaws enacted by the local trust committee were immediately voided by the Island Trust executive in Victoria. The maverick trustees were voted out of office in the next election.

Today half of Galiano remains in limbo. Some landowners managed to erect residences during brief windows between lawsuits; others have been granted permission by the local trust committee to live on the property, but with covenants so restrictive that they say they’re prohibited from even riding a bike on their property for fear of harming a seedling.

A vivid testament to the ongoing gridlock can be found in a six-kilometre stretch of deserted road traversing the island’s backbone. In 1994 Treeco Developments Ltd. obtained approval for a 32-lot subdivision from the Ministry of Transportation, and on the strength of that approval laid a road leading from the populated south end of the island toward the northern tip. A local conservation group immediately sued Treeco, the Ministry of Highways and a handful of others. The land has been frozen in legal limbo ever since, and visitors today can take a scenic drive along a view ridge, only to come to an abrupt halt where the road ends in the middle of nowhere.

Go to any of the islands and you’ll find similar protests, court battles, bylaw amendments and reversals – all characterized by public disputes and name-calling. On Mayne Island, it was a 2009 application to open a grocery store that had local residents up in arms. Like McLeod, the applicant seemed to have all the green credentials – it was to be an organic grocery store specializing in local produce – but local residents’ concerns about traffic and parking finally sank the proposal in the summer of 2010.

On Saturna Island, Larry Page, a former Vancouver lawyer, describes a 15-year battle against local residents and the Islands Trust beginning with what he describes as a surreptitious attempt to remove the commercial zoning from his 32-hectare property immediately after he bought it in 1995 and declared his intention to build a winery and bistro. “It was a very distasteful situation that led to a lot of acrimony,” says Page. After three years of fighting, Page was finally granted a bylaw permitting farm-resort use on his property. But the conflict didn’t end there: his request for a second dock to accommodate visitors sparked another round of protests and name-calling. (That battle was finally resolved when Page simply went ahead and installed the dock, after which the local trust committee grudgingly passed its own bylaw amendment approving it.)

On Hornby Island, Larry Pierce, another former Vancouver lawyer, describes a similar dispute with local residents and the Islands Trust over his Little Tribune Farm and Winery. In this case, short-term vacation rentals are the flashpoint that continues to get locals hot under the collar. Pierce claims his and other local businesses depend on the tourists that vacation rentals attract, while locals claim an influx of vacationers would spoil their rural lifestyle. “What they’re trying to do is kill the whole tourist industry,” says a clearly exasperated Pierce. “And it’s not done in a democratic fashion; they try to do it by stealth,” he says. Pierce claims that when locals finally defeated attempts to institute strict limits on short-term rentals, the local committee simply reintroduced the proposal at the following meeting, ensuring continued bickering and infighting.


Local governments on the Gulf Islands?

The answer to this broken political system may be, as some are insisting, abolishing the Islands Trust and replacing its local committees with independent local governments. But one expert in community planning suggests that swapping one governing structure for another would do nothing to address the underlying conflict, which at its heart revolves around competing notions of the island lifestyle everyone is intent on protecting. 

Like countless others, Sebastian Moffatt always dreamed of living on the Gulf Islands; however, unlike many, he did not wade naively into the turbulent waters of local politics. A community planner, Moffatt had decades of experience in cities and small towns around the world before buying his 13-hectare property on Salt Spring in 1991. He took up full-time residence on the island four years ago and continues to travel the globe consulting for community planners. At the same time, he is restoring his property to the working farm it had been before previous owners turned it into a private retreat.

Both sides are equally to blame for the constant turmoil, Moffatt believes. For their part, the Nimbyists cling to a fairy-tale notion of a “rural” lifestyle, he says: “It doesn’t mean suburban, or exurban, where you have grand lifestyle estates with cut lawns and a few pretty little trees and maybe a couple of little fruit trees and a giant garage.”

On the other hand, Moffatt says, the anti-trust forces are just as responsible for the toxic environment as the NIMBY landowners who rise up at any suggestion of a threat to their tranquil lifestyle. “I’m so fed up with these businesses blaming the trust,” says Moffatt. “The trust can’t win. Whatever decision they make, it’s easy to say, Oh there they go again, saying yes or saying no, and feeding off the natural cynicism about government.” Calls to replace the local committees with an elected government would do nothing to resolve the underlying issues, he adds: “As if we don’t face the same problems as every other municipality!”

The authors of the Islands Trust Act were right in recognizing the unique character of the Gulf Islands, Moffatt says, but the 1974 legislation is hopelessly outdated. “In 1973 it was a landmark document, and now everybody looks to it and assumes it’s special, but I do sustainability planning all over the world, and the ‘preserve and protect’ mandate is nothing compared to what we’re doing. We’ve been left behind.”

What’s needed is a time out, Moffatt says, a halt to the bickering and name-calling while all the stakeholders put their heads together to fill in the gaps in the mandate defined by the act – to define exactly what “amenities” they want to preserve and what a workable 21st-century community looks like on the Gulf Islands.

Moffatt compares the Gulf Islands to Banff, Alberta, which by the mid-1990s had devolved to a tacky tourist destination, despite falling under the protection of the National Parks Act. In 1994 then heritage minister Sheila Copps called a halt to all development while comprehensive guidelines were drawn up. “She said until you have the world’s best green guidelines for transportation and buildings and development – which my company was hired to develop – you’re not doing anything,” Moffatt explains. After two years of study, guidelines were enacted and Banff has since continued to develop as both a valued national resource and a thriving community.

Moffatt hopes to define a new kind of “rural,” starting with his own property. He has visions of a working farm, operated by a resident staff sharing living quarters and hosting volunteer workers from around the globe. However, his vision begins with a rezoning application: his land falls in the Agricultural Land Reserve, and he will need the local trust committee’s support in order to obtain permission from the Agricultural Land Commission to build a workers residence on the property. His request for its support is currently before the Salt Spring Local Trust Committee. 

Moffatt doesn’t expect easy approval for his vision of a vital working farm, one that will include tractors and roosters and boisterous children. He remains optimistic, however, that the forces of Nimbyism will one day be overcome. “If they say no, they say no,” he says of his application for the trust’s support. “But in the longer term I’m on the edge of something that’s not going away.”